Should We Stop Using Coptic?

To preface this: this came up in a discussion among servants and youth, and we never reached a consensus. Personally, I am very much on the "yes" side of the debate, and so are many of the prominent voices on this forum, but I believe those who do not agree with us have valid concerns that must be addressed.

The discussion began when we did a veneration for St. Philopateer the night of his feast. There were around 10 of us (socially distanced with masks) with myself and 2 other deacons leading the rest. Among the congregation was an Ethiopian college student who does not read Coptic or Arabic. After we finished, one of the other servants came up to us and asked why we did not do all English for his sake, especially since us leaders know the Tamgeed in English. Our answer was... shrug. It didn't cross our minds at the time, and there wasn't very many of us in the room, so we went with what we do most of the time- a mix of English, Arabic, and Coptic.

The discussion continues until he says "I think that we should just do all English all the time. No more Coptic." Here's where I leave it to you.

A summary of the points talked about:
Common Ground (things we all agreed upon):
  • It is crucial to understand the words of the hymns we say
  • The current structure of service, and the societal forces that be, cause this to not be true.
    • This is mainly due to 2 things: growing diversity in the Churches (including more people who did not grow up in the Church, and do not know Arabic or Coptic); and the Coptic being a language not spoken in people's houses.
  • This is a hindrance to Church growth and unity.
  • The end goal is to have a congregation that is in unity with the deacons' chorus, saying the hymns and responses in once voice with full understanding.
    • Said understanding can be in English or Coptic- the goal is understanding.
Pro-Coptic Points
(Coptic should remain a part of our Church services and rites)
(Again, this is where I stand, so please be aware that I have a bias.)
  • We are the Coptic Church, and therefore knowing the language of our fathers and forefathers is important.
    • There's a reason St. Samuel the Confessor was so against Arabic overtaking Coptic in the Church.
  • The solution to the lack of understanding is to systematically and rigorously revive Coptic through the channels we already have (Hymns/Deacon Prep classes and Sunday School)
    • Not everyone was as on-board as I was with the idea of teaching an entire generation Coptic, since they viewed it as unfeasible.
    • The proposed alternative was that the translation is right there- anyone who does not already know what the hymn says can glance 5 inches to the left or right and learn. Again, I don't think this is enough, but it is a valid point.
  • The hymns have a meaning and depth that only comes from Coptic, and changing them into English loses that depth.
  • St. Paul says that using tongues is acceptable as long as one can understand what is said (1 Corinthians 14). The translation is there (or people know the language), so we are in the clear.
  • The deacons and leaders all know the hymns in Coptic. To teach them in English would require the translation, modification (so the words do not sound clunky or out-of-place with the melody of the hymn), and standardization across the Church, and THEN teaching said standardized version to the congregation.
  • If we switch to all English, many of the original hymns and, with them, a part of our Church's history will fade away.
Anti-Coptic Points
(Coptic should not be a part of our Church services and rites- instead, the local language [usually English] should be used.)
  • We are the Alexandrian Church. What links us is not hymns or language, but faith. That is more than strong enough to unite us as a Church.
    • "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations..."- not Egypt, or specific nations, but all. Therefore, the Church must have open arms to 
  • It is soooo much easier to learn the hymns in English because you know the language! Why add an extra step?
  • Coptic is a dead language. Why devote time to learning it when we could better spend that time learning the sayings of the fathers, or memorizing scripture?
  • Language drives converts away. A study was done in Coptic churches that showed that the biggest reason for converts feeling unwelcome was language (Arabic or Coptic).
  • No one nowadays truly knows Coptic- instead, they know how to translate the words in their head. 
    • Someone reading a Coptic word first has to translate it to English or Arabic, understand that word's meaning, and put in in the context of the rest of the sentence. That's so many unnecessary steps!
  • The depth of the hymns is in their melody, not the language they're in.
  • On Pentecost, the Spirit did not cause everyone to understand the language the Apostles were speaking- it caused everyone to hear them in their native tongue. Our native tongue is English. When the Church speaks to us, it should be in our native tongue.

I have responses to those points, but I want to open this discussion to you all: Should we stop using Coptic in the Church?


  • I don't think there is a right answer to this question. It comes down to preference and I think all options should be open to people. Just like we have English services and Arabic services, why can't we have services that are all English (like in the monastery) and services that are mixed. People can choose which to attend based on their preference.
  • I do not intend to reply to this topic.
    @Daniel_Kyrillos please note that St Paul's references to tongues was not meant for foreign languages. In that era there was a phenomenon of "spirit taking control over one's own body and producing unintelligible sounds that are interpreted by themselves or others through the emotions and bodily movements" - something along those lines..
    Ⲟⲩϫⲁⲓ ϧⲉⲛ Ⲡϭⲥ
  • edited December 2020
    This is a non-ending argument--I have it all the time with many individuals--and sadly, the middle ground is never acceptable to the anti-coptic extreme. Since I am pro-coptic, I just wanna give some quick responses to the points above. 
    1. "We are the Alexandrian Church" me this is a weak argument since when you dig deeper, there isn't really a basis for it, yet it is the foundation of the SUS diocese's approach to the "America Coptic Orthodox Church." While we are the Church of Alexandria, we were not called that because of "our faith" since our faith, that is the true universal Christian faith, was also that of the Church of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome--the 4 original Sees. Each of those church didn't have a different faith, but each was unique in their "way of worship"...what's another word for that?! It's "rituals" or "rites"...and what defines rites and rituals?! that's hymns and language. In fact, the RCC has jurisdictions in Egypt in the Middle East that use the Latin Rite and the Coptic Rite (or the local rite of the church)....yet both have the same faith under the RCC. So saying that we are Copts or Alexandrians because of our faith would be a slap in the face to our current sister churches that are of the same faith, and the ones that were once united with us ante-Chalcedon. 
    2. "It is soooo much easier to learn the hymns in English": I beg to differ. Research has found that to if you have music that is composed in a specific language, once you try to transfer that to another language, you will for sure lose some of the original. We have many examples of deacons who all they do now is transfer coptic hazzat to english and they will confirm this. Of course, this is separate from the issue of the style of coptic hymns not being compatible with a European language like english. Even in music in general, there isn't a unified musical language that everyone can use and understand--different styles have different types of musical notes--that's why you can't just have coptic music in classical musical notes
    3. "Coptic is a dead language"... i am all for teaching the coptic language to revive it, but sadly I have to be practical and say that this will never happen. But the issue we have here is not about Coptic as a language but as an identification to who we are as Copts and how we do things in Church. Too many people use the word Coptic (in arabic too) to suit their own purpose, and those that are anti-coptic here do the same in just limiting it to just being a language--scholarly works, even if they are only language-based, can never study that without defining who are the Copts
    4. "Language drives converts away."--1st, we don't do legit studies in "Coptic churches" ....we just do bias inadequate surveys and take that to make life-changing decisions. It's awful. However, this is partially true....but are we talking about the language of the people or the liturgical language?! I have to say that it's the former since this is related to how the people of the Church deal with the people outside the Church, which we for sure have the biggest problem with--we are not the most welcoming people in general (there are many church that have mastered being welcoming to converts and visitors, while still have a healthy usage of Coptic in the liturgy)
    5. "No one nowadays truly knows Coptic- instead, they know how to translate the words in their head."
      "The depth of the hymns is in their melody, not the language they're in."
      --You cannot tell me that it's not about the language and ask me to take away that language that the melody was originally constructed in. It's contradictory to say the least. It's not about steps, it's about prayer. And when it's not about prayer, it's about understanding, in which case the readings are read in the local language.... that has been the case for probably a couple of decades now--prayer is done mainly in Coptic, while the readings or sermons or senixar or lectures are done in the local language--the Church sees a different in what needs to be "understood" and what needs to be "prayed"
    6. "On Pentecost, the Spirit did not cause everyone to understand the language the Apostles were speaking"--I'll play the devil's advocate and say, "then why is the Holy Spirit not doing the same now every time in churches?!"...maybe it's because we are comparing apples with oranges. The Apostles were preaching...that's equivalent to the lecture or sermon that we have now a day. This MUST be done in the local language... But that's not how use coptic these days. 
    The biggest problem through all these arguments is that no one considering the specifics of everything. Some questions:
    • When you are talking about changing hymns, are you talking about long hymns, or short ones, or medium ones? Or Vespers and Midnight Praises? Or saints hymns that generally very unique? or doxologies or glorifications hymns which are generally quick in chanting, while they do tell a story of some type? Or are you speaking about priests parts that are generally directed to God and not us?
    • When you say that we need to understand what we are praying, does that mean that every moment of a liturgical service will be prayed by you?
    • When you say that we want everything in english because it's easier, wouldn't that ease maybe make you bored of what's happening??....after all, the liturgy is almost the same everyday (This is while our church has one of the richest hymnology or liturgical calendar compared to other apostolic churches.

    Wow....I said too much. I think it's ok. 
  • Daniel Kyrillos, the question you asked was "should we remove Coptic." I think the answer  lies in which group of people is meant by we. In our Coptic Orthodox church in Canada and America right now, we have many parishes that were established to serve new generations, converts, and mixed marriages. These parishes do not use the Coptic or Arabic, because these languages would be an obstacle for prayer, for these groups of people. For immigrants from Egypt, however, who have an established tradition of taking the blessing of the historic language of the Church of Alexandria, the use of Coptic should be expected. It would have been a nice gesture to make everything English just for that one time, for the Ethiopian visitor, but God willing he was able to follow along anyway, or at least make that time a time for prayer. God bless!
  • @EstephanosPhilipos. @Daniel_Kyrillos is from the states. And while you are correct about having some churches already taking that step, the idea is greatly criticized and creeps up all the time in other areas in which there isn't a bishop that will "force" such a major change. Many individuals also who are converts and have come to the Church to accepted her as she is, while maybe disliking the use of Arabic (not coptic), criticize such setup for churches. There are too many reasons to discuss about this topic, and while language is one of them, it's not the main one. 

    I wrote a whole 2 paragraph about this whole english-only church approach... but it wouldn't be fruitful to discuss anything else other than the language aspect.

    So, lets be objective and just speak about Removing Coptic. 
  • Mina, I believe it's dependent on the group of people to which we are referring. For the newcomers into Orthodoxy, or even the future generations, Coptic can be an obstacle. Let us not forget that Ethiopian Church (which was part of the Coptic church from the time of St. Athanasius, to the 1960s) was never forced to use Coptic or even be liturgically identical to the Egyptians. As long as the goal is to do whatever we need to do to make the richness of our Orthodox liturgical tradition understandable to the group of people in question, we have nothing to fear.  
  • I don't think referencing the Ethiopian church is a good example. Different times and we are not sure exactly what happened there. Also, all of africa was under the jurisdiction of the Church of Alexandria at the time, and we don't exactly know how all those areas worshiped... Was it according to the Coptic rite or not?!

    Moreover, I don't think your similitude would be accepted since it would propose a separation within the Church as I mentioned above. Is that what is desired?! If it is, then make that public.

    Another point that is a bit complicated to discuss: "our orthodox liturgical tradition" -- I have a problem with that. Our orthodox liturgical tradition is defined by being Coptic, either in language or rite. You cannot just refer to the "Orthodox liturgy" without referring to which rite are you talking about. Because, and as I mentioned before, we share the same faith with the rest of the Oriental Orthodox churches and, technically, with the EO churches too... yet all have different rites for the liturgy and each is identified as such. You take that identification away.
  • No, no one has the goal of creating a division in the church. The goal is just serving all people. And of course we should continue to follow the Coptic rite. All Orthodox rites have the same richness, the same ethos, and the same structure.
  • I am proposing that some parishes, which are the mission parishes, use only English. Other parishes can pray in Arabic and Coptic, which are directed towards immigrants. Immigrant-focused parishes can also offer some English services for the children and youth. People who really need English in a diocese should be directed to the mission parishes. New immigrants should be directed to the other parishes.
  • I think it’s important that the immigrant-focused parishes incorporate some English in the Divine Liturgy, or have a monthly all-English Liturgy, so as not to alienate the children and youth.
  • I fail to see that proposal to be anything other than a separation between the churches. And I actually personally disagree with having immigrants based churches as a whole. Even in a moderately english balanced church, we struggle with helping immigrants and their children acclimate. Having such a set-up wouldn't help this problem but make it harder to fix.
  • Yes, but the problem with mixed churches is that they struggle to serve too many different groups of people at once, it turns into a situation that’s equally difficult for new immigrants, as it is for converts.
  • I know of a congregation in New York that had two sanctuaries in their church building and was able to do an all-English Liturgy, for the new generations and converts, as well as an Arabic/Coptic liturgy simultaneously every Sunday. It seemed like a setup that actually worked quite well for them.
  • That's the setup that we have been doing at St. Mark's Jersey City as far as i remember...since 1999 i believe. But the difference is, it's not an all-english liturgy, it's a coptic/english liturgy and the other is coptic/arabic liturgy.....the middle ground that works while everyone serves every other person in church.
  • Whatever serves the people bro. Different things work for different congregations. As long as no one gets left behind.
  • edited December 2020
    We can never "stop" Coptic. That's really all there needs to be said.
  • i agree with minatasgeel and jojo hanna.
    every single church is a mission church (check the book of the acts of the apostles for examples and all the writings of the church fathers!)
    i love the coptic language very much, although i am still a beginner.
    i came to the orthodox church through my love of arabic.
    i am a native british middle aged woman and grew up only speaking english.

    it was the arabic speaking egyptian orthodox Christians who showed me what i was missing in my protestant Christian experience (long story).

    however, it is VERY rude to have a service where even one person present does not have access to translation. i totally understand that. 
    please give visitors access to translations on the screen or in books!

    one last point - when translating long hymns (the aaaaaaaaaaa ooooooooooo eeeeeeeeeeeee ones) into english, PLEASE ask a native speaker to help you and don't murder our language!
    i would rather sing in coptic than sing 'i i i i i i i ip you' ('up yours' is a common and very rude british swearing phrase).
    the correct way to sing this is 'wor or or or or or or or ship you' ('ship you' is not rude!)
    when you separate out our syllables in a way that fits music from another language, it can end up sounding rude. so please ask us first!
    thank God, some people in my diocese are starting to do this so i am learning some of the hymns in english.

    oh and can i please say that the correct translation from the greek is 'our father in the heavens'. our Lord Jesus Christ never used old greek or any other old language in communication, nor did the early church.
    so please can we stop saying 'art in heaven'? that type of english is about 400 years old.
    to be honest, i usually pray the Lord's prayer in arabic; it is a better translation and i don't have to use old fashioned phrases.

    in summary, yes, translate things.
    yes, ask native speakers for help (including egyptians brought up in other countries),
    no, don't think that language is everything.
    the relationship with God is everything.
    the cultural diversity just enriches the experience if the people in the church have relationships with God.
    (if they don't, no amount of speaking in english is going to fix that!)
  • Liturgy = Yes

    Hymns = Teach in Coptic from English. Do some in English. 

    Just replace the word "Arabic" with "English" and you solve 95% of your problems. 

  • @ItalianCoptic...that's what i have been saying all along. Equate English (or the local language) to Arabic, and NOT Coptic... In doing so, you don't even get the issue of reinventing the current structure of the liturgy which does accommodate a duel-language setup. 
  • My humble suggestion would be to study other churches which have been in a diaspora for over a century or more. I grew up near Roman Catholic, Eastern (Byzantine) Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Some of the questions I see are things which other ethnicities and churches have already lived through. Do you guys really think in 2120 that your descendants who may still live in the U.S., Canada, Australia or even France and Norway will really be speaking Arabic or will have any connection with Egypt?

    The "Mission Statement" of the church is to spread the gospel, the sacraments and teach. I wouldn't be surprised if in 30 years it will be called "Alexandrian" Orthodox to teach the dogmatic and theological principles of the church of Alexandria. The culture you all grew up in will be a memory to your children and an unknown to your grandchildren.

    Keep the Coptic as the Liturgical Language of the church. It would be extremely beneficial. You aren't the first people to go through this. Sometimes I read what so many Copts say about the diaspora and think " Do they know they aren't the first Christian immigrants?"

    It will be fine. As long as the structure of the church is strong, and our clergy is teaching correctly, language will evolve naturally based on necessity.
  • We have different parishes to serve different people. These are great strategies for newcomers to a typical mixed language Coptic parish. But there’s nothing wrong with what the mission parishes are doing with all-English. And there’s nothing wrong with parishes that put a lot of emphasis on Arabic and/or Coptic. Whatever is seen as best for the people
  • The reason the mission churches are dropping Coptic is that it is seen as a burden to those who were not taught it, that would keep them from participating in the Divine Liturgy, or understanding it well. This includes both new generations and converts.

    There is nothing against Orthodox dogma or practice in using or not using Coptic. It is a blessing to sing things in the historical church language. But it is a hinderance to many, one that some never get over
  • If a parish, like many missionary Coptic parishes today, are specifically dedicated to serve those who would not get by in a typical Coptic parish, dropping Coptic is natural.

    If a parish is not created for this purpose, then keeping Coptic and Arabic are natural. The three languages would be used in whatever combination serves the people.

  • edited December 2020
    I don't see the need for extinguishing Coptic completely. It isn't used in the Liturgy enough to impede someone from not understanding something if a majority of the Liturgy is in English.

    Maybe a "Father, Son and Holy Spirit..", Stand up for Prayer, a call to listen to the gospel, bow to the Lord, etc.? Maybe the first part of the Litany of the Saints?

    As a convert I can say that there is no proper way to cover every conversion. A woman came to our church (someone whose husband is Pakistani of all things) and she didn't convert because it is mostly Arabic. She became Greek Orthodox. Yet, I have never heard an entire English Liturgy in a decade and serve the Altar. It varies from person to person.

    Yes, it is great to hear things in English and I completely agree with what you're saying. Getting rid of Coptic is useless. It's not that difficult of a language, and learning a sentence here and there isn't going to make someone not convert. If they convert solely because it's in English, then it's for convenience, not substance. We'll turn into the modern Catholic church and be a shell of what we are now.

    Catholics took Latin out in the 1960s, and it came back 50 years later because people saw the value in it. Most Roman Catholic Priests study at the Vatican and have a basic concept of Liturgical Latin. Catholicism is far more diverse than our church,i.e., clergy from non-Latin based language countries. There is no excuse to take Coptic out of the Liturgy of the Church, even in a "mission" church. In 30 years 95% of churches will be in English or French in North America. My culture went through this already. Keep the traditions.
  • edited December 2020
    Our world today does not allow us to drop what we don’t know or even accept, it forces us to learn what we don’t know.
    Why then in the Church, which is our true world, would we “drop what we don’t know”?
    Since this is what matters, should we not make efforts to learn it?

    What’s wrong with teaching missionary churches bit by bit? Is that not what we do with them about God when we Teach them bit by bit?

    I usually restrict from speaking about this topic, but let me just say this:
    If there was a church that offered its services in ALL Coptic, that’s where you’d find me.

    In our Faith, Life & World, Christ is our mission and in our Home, the Church - Coptic is our Language.

    + God Bless +
  • "If there was a church that offered its services in ALL Coptic, that’s where you’d find me."
    Awesome, good for you! I hope that such a Divine Liturgy is offered at some point. I just feel as though it is not necessary to criticize the all-English mission parishes, because they disclude Coptic with the intention of bringing more people to experience the richness of the Coptic tradition's liturgical prayers. I am blessed to be a member of a mission parish in which we historically have had deacons leading the chants from a variety of ethnicities. If we placed a heavy emphasis on Coptic, such would be extremely difficult. 
  • Thanks for enlightening me @ItalianCoptic.. Great insight.
    Very well said @Jojo_Hanna.. God bless you and please do not forget me in your prayers..
    Ⲟⲩϫⲁⲓ ϧⲉⲛ Ⲡϭⲥ
  • in the book of acts, there weren't separate churches for jews and for gentiles.
    nor in the early churches.
  • Well, in the end of the day what we are talking about is not for us to decide. We are not the bishops of the Coptic Orthodox church. Our Bishops have allowed mission parishes, both in Canada and across the US. Our bishops also govern parishes that are mixed in terms of language, and parishes that focus mostly on the immigrant population. We are allowed to have opinions, but in the end of the day we must submit to our bishops. 

    "See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop."

    "Whatsoever [the bishop] shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.”

    -St Ignatius of Antioch.
  • @EstephanosPhilipos.... of course, when arguments fall short, we just put the blame on leaders... But who do you think advices these leaders?! Still us.

This discussion has been closed.